Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

Jamie Langenbrunner was supposed to be Ilya Kovalchuk's teammate, and the two still might end up together again as Devils. But the fight the NHL picked by rejecting Kovalchuk's 17-year, $102-million contract, a fight that will be resolved at the end of this week with an arbitrator either denying or agreeing with the NHL's assertion that the contract violated its salary cap, has left Langenbrunner and many of his fellow players scratching their heads.

They're also wondering if - five years into the collective-bargaining agreement that was considered a huge victory for commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL owners after a year-long lockout - the league's stance on the Kovalchuk contract is the first public maneuver in advance of the next round of CBA negotiations. The agreement expires at the end of the 2011-12 season.

"What really bothers me," Langenbrunner said, "is that [the NHL] got the deal they wanted and they're still not happy."

A source with close ties to the NHL Players Association took it a step further. "I fully believe the NHL will push for another lockout if it doesn't get what it wants in the next CBA," the source said. "Which means the last lockout was a complete joke."

It was July 22, 2005, when the landscape of the NHL completely changed. After a 300-day lockout in which the league became the first major North American sport to cancel an entire season, a deal was reached for a hard salary cap with ties to league revenues: The cap for the 2005-06 season was $39 million, with the floor at $21.5 million.

No player's salary could exceed 20 percent of the cap. A cap on rookie contracts was installed. And an escrow account was created for the league to take back money from the players if salaries exceeded a percentage of league revenues - 54 percent at the time of the CBA ratification, almost 57 percent now. Last year, the players gave back 11 percent of their salaries.

The deal - achieved at the cost of a full season - also cost longtime Players Association leader Bob Goodenow his job. He was dismissed just after the deal was signed.

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The deal set the NHL on the path to "cost certainty," Bettman's catchphrase throughout the dark winter.

"When you look back in a year, five, 10, this era in history, today in particular, will be viewed as a pivotal point in time," Bettman said five years ago. "It's the time where we could begin to move forward, finally in an effective way where the game could be as good as it could be."

Bettman said the league was fighting for the small-market teams, to level the playing field for the Tampa Bays and Nashvilles against big spenders such as the Rangers, Red Wings and Leafs. But the current CBA provides only about 5 percent of revenues for sharing, from the top few teams among the bottom 10.

In very public negotiations, the two sides made these proposals: The NHLPA wanted a $49-million cap with no ties to revenues, the NHL wanted a $42.5-million cap with no ties to revenues. Neither budged, so the league chose a proposed cap tied to revenues and went to the mat for that.

The cap is up $20.4 million in five years, a product of record attendance and a strengthening Canadian dollar, among other factors. But revenues for the small-market teams, particularly in the South and Southwest, have been crushed by the economy, and now those teams have to spend to a $43.4-million minimum while getting a tiny amount covered by revenue sharing.

"There were certain realities we were dealing with at the end of that negotiation so that we would not miss any more time," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Newsday. "There were certainly things we compromised on that under different circumstances, we might not have compromised on."

Daly said he expects the next CBA negotiation to be far less contentious and complicated. "Last time, it was changing the landscape, the entire framework," he said. "I don't anticipate that this time."

The PA's ace in the hole could change that. In baseball, Donald Fehr led the players association through the 1990s, when salaries in the sport rose exponentially and he successfully fought MLB's attempt to institute a salary cap. Fehr is working as an adviser to the PA.

Fehr's presence has the players feeling strong. "I think we're as unified as we've been since maybe the mid-1990s," said Langenbrunner, who is on the five-player search committee for a new director. "If there's anyone in the world you want in a process like this, it's Don."

One NHL Players Association-connected source said he's convinced the league will fight again for a hard cap with no ties to revenues, though league revenues have leveled off. "I think it will go back to what they were hoping for five years ago," the source said. "And if they don't get it . . . "

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What comes next?